Mattia Mariotti is an eccentric in the truest sense of the word. Clearly intelligent, his mind spins on a different axis than most – this much has been made clear with his production of The Physicists.
With the show’s phantasmagoric opening, the chorus of madmen, the entrance of Umar Mukhtar (resplendent in frock, bunny ears, and brandishing a faded light bulb), I was mistaken in assuming that Mariotti’s play skirted on the ludicrous side of surreal. With a script heavy in absurdity, Mariotti has presented St Andrews with a delightfully bizarre, often hilarious, and ultimately sobering performance that will not be soon forgotten.
The Physicists, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, centers upon the life of Johan Wilhelm Möbius, played by the amicable Chris Cannell, following the murder of one of the female nurses at the institution where Möbius is a patient. Möbius is a physicist, and a brilliant one, but his frequent visions of the late, great King Solomon have assured his place among the mad. His two fellow patients both believe themselves to be great physicists, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton respectively, but all is not as it seems with these characters as Möbius begins to fall deeper, and deeper into questioning his own sanity, his place in society, and his responsibility as a genius. With the twists and turns of a labyrinth, the plot hurtles forward to an end the audience could not possibly foresee.
Needless to say, this was an ambitious undertaking for Mr. Mariotti.
Luckily for him, though, The Physicists boasted a strong ensemble cast. Chris Cannell played Möbius with thoughtful care, articulating his character’s struggles best when in the company of Hamish White and Peter von Zahnd. This duo brought the play’s most memorable comedic moments to the fore. They were each tragic and tragically absurd in equal portions, and a delight to watch. At times, it was difficult to understand Cannell as he raised his voice in rage or confusion, but I was won over in the end by his portrayal of the jaded physicist. Rebecca Dsouza, playing the sinister head of the sanatorium, Mathilde von Zahnd (yes, a joke was made of the coincidence between the actor and the character), deserves particular mention. Dsouza’s own descent into madness through the play was filled with humour, portraying the world of the play to be one where the delusional and sane are almost entirely indistinguishable.
Costumes, handled by Xara Bennett-Jones, were one of the show’s greatest strengths. From the mundane, such as the nurses’ and attendants’ uniforms, to the extravagant, King Solomon’s robes, to the utterly bizarre, the aforementioned ensemble of bunny ears and white frock worn by Umar Mukhtar, we were given a wide and varied visual feast.
This contrasted directly with the sparse set that boasted, at most, a handful of chairs, and a small table. What made this simple array come alive, however, was a process of constant reinvention and utilization where no one prop felt unnecessary or excessive.
The Physicists brings the pulp-fantasy of a David Lynch film together with the young bravado of great student theatre; if you didn’t see it, you can only hope that Mariotti decides to bring his talents once again to the stage.
Images by Marian Firke